Real estate law: area of practice
Acting on the legal side in relation to commercial real estate includes not only the core traditional activities involving development, leasing, financing, buying and selling property, but increasingly it requires being a more general adviser to the real estate industry. This involves advising clients in relation to real estate activities generally and can encompass anything from tax and fund structuring to indirect investment in property, including share and unit trust sales and acquisitions and joint venture arrangements.
A property deal takes anywhere from a few days to two or so months to conclude. There can be between 2 and 20- plus lawyers on each transaction, depending on its size.
The types of deals real estate lawyers work on
Property lawyers may have a few larger transactions on at any one time or a larger number of smaller deals. I’m handling around 12 deals at the moment. Typical clients include: lenders, property investment funds, pension funds, property companies, private equity houses and corporates. For example, I recently dealt with the letting of premises in central London to a law firm setting up new headquarters; I’ve also acted recently for a private equity house investing in care homes; and I acted for the Canary Wharf group buying a large site on the Canary Wharf estate back from an Irish investor consortium last year.
Working with real estate clients
Most work is office based, but you won’t just be sitting at your desk – solicitors have lots of client meetings. You’ll also make site visits when a appropriate. Hours vary, but a typical day is around 8.30 or 9.00 am to 6.30 pm (if you’re leaving early to a business development event with clients/contacts) or 7.00 to 8.00 pm if not. Weekends and all-nighters are rare but not unheard of. On average, there will be at least one client business development event per week, sometimes at lunchtime and sometimes in the evening. Working hours and transactional activity is unpredictable – you rarely follow the same pattern each week. For some people, the absence of equilibrium from one day to the next can be a downside, but I enjoy working in this way; it keeps me motivated, interested and on my toes.
How recession-proof is this area of practice?
The real estate industry was not immune to the general downturn at the beginning of the recession in 2008, as the banks stopped lending and confidence disappeared. With the availability of traditional finance in short supply, one consequence of the downturn has been for property clients to adapt and become more innovative, particularly in relation to how they finance projects. Increasingly, they’ve started raising funds through joint ventures with cash-rich third parties (eg sovereign wealth funds or pension funds). That has been an increasing trend since around 2009, and looks set to continue.
The type of work you’ll be given as a trainee solicitor
Trainees are given plenty of early responsibility. On larger transactions, trainees will mainly assist other lawyers. Some tasks – such as assigning a lease, or a straightforward sale and purchase – can be given to trainees with minimal supervision. In general, they have a lot of client contact, run their own files, and gain a good level of drafting and negotiation experience.
The skills good real estate solicitors have
- Curiosity, energy, motivation and intelligence.
- An interest in the property industry.
- A sense of humour.
- Teamworking skills.
- Attention to detail.
- Communication skills.
Types of law practised in real estate departments
TOM PEDDER is a partner in the real estate group at MACFARLANES LLP. He graduated from the University of Oxford in 1991 with a degree in earth sciences and geology.